Gilboa Village Celebrates Building of First Church in 1,000 Years

The first church to be built in Nazareth since the Byzantine period
Sep 30, 2003 11:36 AM EDT

Next Saturday, Muzhar Saad, a young Christian from the Muqibla village, located on the pre-1967 Green Line border, will marry his betrothed, Arene Kosmus from Nazareth. The marriage ceremony will take place in a Nazareth church. For the past 150 years, the Christians of Muqibla have had to travel to Nazareth for religious ceremonies. Muzhar says that he hopes he will be the last member of the village's small Christian community who will have to make the trip to Nazareth for such religious events. Yesterday, a cornerstone for a church was laid in the village.

Ahmed al-Bahiri, a counselor at the local community center said enthusiastically: "This is the first church to be built in this area since the Byzantine period. No churches have been built in the Gilboa for over a thousand years." Muqibla, one of five Arab villages belonging to the Gilboa regional council and the only one with Christian residents, runs along the separation fence. During Operation Defensive Shield last spring, the residents went onto their roofs to watch IDF helicopter warships fire at targets in Jenin, which is located just several hundred meters from the village. At the entrance to the village, there are a several posters declaring support for members of the Islamic Movement who were arrested, and there is a picture of the al-Aqsa mosque.

Salim Eid, a Muslim resident of the village who serves as deputy head of the regional council, says that the relations between Christians and Muslims in Muqibla are excellent. There are 3,600 residents in the village, including about 200 Christians - all Roman Catholics. When it comes time for Quran class at the local elementary school, the 30 Christian pupils leave the class and have a separate lesson taught by a Christian teacher. Four years ago, the residents began to hold a Christmas procession and the entire village participates - Christians and Muslims.

However, the Christians lack an appropriate building in which to conduct their prayer services. A priest from Nazareth comes once a week to celebrate mass in a tiny basement serving as a temporary church. Fifteen years ago, the Christians in Muqibla decided to seek a more appropriate place. The regional council persuaded the Israel lands Administration to rezone agricultural land for this purpose and the village council - composed entirely of Muslims - gave its blessing and a building permit was issued last year. The regional council provided a little funding, the residents collected donations and the foundations were laid. The budget, NIS 150,000, was only enough for the floor of the prayer hall and some of the walls. "I think it will tale $500,000 to complete the church," al-Bahiri explains.

Yesterday, at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, an elegant brown Mercedes flying the yellow flag of the Catholic Church made its way down the dusty road leading to the building site of the new church. Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah, the pope's senior representative in the Middle east, stepped out of the car, adorned with a large silver cross on of his chest, a black robe and skull cap. Children and women watched him reverently and bowed when he approached. Some - including Muslims - kissed his hand.

Badi'a Sehori, 62, who has lived in the village for 45 years, nearly fainted: "This is the happiest day of my life."